WASHINGTON – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu overstated Iran's domination of the Middle East and understated the timespan of the nuclear deal taking shape with Tehran, while neglecting the role of Congress in lifting Iranian sanctions, in his speech to U.S. lawmakers Tuesday.
On the whole, Netanyahu largely adhered to what is known about the nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran, even if he predicted far direr consequences for the Middle East and the world if a deal is reached this month. His calculations on how close that might leave Iran to nuclear weapons capacity rested on solid footing.
Still, Netanyahu exaggerated at times for dramatic effect. On the length of an agreement, he wrongly asserted that restrictions on Iranian nuclear activity would come to a sudden end after a decade. Some constraints will be phased out while others will remain. And the Obama administration immediately disputed his account of an accord paving Iran's "path to the bomb" and noted how short his address was on viable alternatives for dealing with Iran's program.
A look at how some of Netanyahu's arguments adhere to the facts as known, or the best public information detailing the confidential nuclear negotiations with Iran:
NETANYAHU: "The first major concession would leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure, providing it with a short breakout time to the bomb... . Because Iran's nuclear program would be left largely intact, Iran's break-out time would be very short — about a year by U.S. assessment, even shorter by Israel's. And if Iran's work on advanced centrifuges, faster and faster centrifuges, is not stopped, that break-out time could still be shorter, a lot shorter."
THE FACTS: "Short" is debatable. The Obama administration argues that a year is plenty long enough for international inspectors and intelligence agencies to pick up on any effort by Iran to surreptitiously "break out" toward nuclear weapons. Netanyahu said his government's understanding of the agreement means that window would be narrower. He didn't specify by how much, however. On advanced centrifuges, Netanyahu noted that their installation would cut the timespan even more. But he didn't mention that a deal is likely to restrict Iran to its basic centrifuge model, at least over the first decade.
NETANYAHU: "According to the deal, not a single nuclear facility would be demolished. Thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium would be left spinning. Thousands more would be temporarily disconnected, but not destroyed."
THE FACTS: Though vague, Netanyahu's assessments on facilities and centrifuges are reasonable. Instead of dismantlement, officials have spoken of Iran converting its underground uranium enrichment site at Fordo into a research facility. A planned heavy water reactor at Arak seems likely to be redesigned to produce far less plutonium than first envisioned. Plutonium, like uranium, can be used in nuclear warheads. Negotiators say Iran could reduce its centrifuges enriching uranium to 6,500 — significantly less than the 9,000 that operate now and the thousands more sitting offline.
NETANYAHU: "True, certain restrictions would be imposed on Iran's nuclear program and Iran's adherence to those restrictions would be supervised by international inspectors. But here's the problem. You see, inspectors document violations; they don't stop them."
THE FACTS: The U.N. nuclear agency has little enforcement power to eliminate noncompliant Iranian activity. But by publicizing infractions, the agency would put the world on notice. Documented violations with the United Nations' imprimatur would give the U.S. ample justification for re-imposing suspended sanctions, bringing the matter to the U.N. Security Council or even considering military options.
NETANYAHU: "The second major concession creates an even greater danger that Iran could get to the bomb by keeping the deal, because virtually all the restrictions on Iran's nuclear program will automatically expire in about a decade... Iran would then be free to build a huge nuclear capacity that could produce many, many nuclear bombs."
THE FACTS: Netanyahu is playing loose with the timespan for a deal. American and Western officials say the full ledger of restrictions in an agreement would stay in place for at least a decade, and only then would Iran's program be allowed to gradually expand. The total life of the agreement would be at least 15 years. Even after the full agreement expires, all sanctions against Iran won't be lifted and certainly not those pertaining to Iranian terrorism links, human rights violations and development of advanced missile technology. Some enrichment restrictions also would stay in place. These include the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty's additional protocol, which Iran is likely to sign, and perhaps even more stringent constraints. The protocol serves as an early warning mechanism for infractions.
NETANYAHU: "In the Middle East, Iran now dominates four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran's aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow. So at a time when many hope that Iran will join the community of nations, Iran is busy gobbling up the nations."
THE FACTS: Iran's army hasn't invaded any capitals and the government hasn't annexed territory, even as its influence across the Middle East has widened. The Syrian government is dependent on Iran in its civil war, but the others, less so. Lebanon isn't totally in the grips of Hezbollah. Yemen's Houthis, while Shiite, have assigned limited credit to Iran for their coup. And Shiite militias may be "rampaging through Iraq," as Netanyahu says, but they're doing so alongside the Iraqi army and in battle against Islamic State terrorists.
NETANYAHU: "If Iran's intercontinental ballistic missile program is not part of the deal, and so far, Iran refuses to even put it on the negotiating table, well, Iran could have the means to deliver that nuclear arsenal to the far-reach corners of the Earth, including to every part of the United States."
THE FACTS: Just last month, a senior U.S. negotiator said Iran's ballistic missile program would be addressed in any agreement. Iran has brushed aside U.N. requirements in the past, however, and closely guards its research and development efforts at military installations.